Blues guitarist Buddy Guy

The six-time Grammy-winning musician shares why it took so long for him to record his own music and his mission to keep jazz clubs alive; he also details his memoir, When I Left Home.

His performance this year at the White House wasn't Buddy Guy's first time there. He visited the Oval Office in 2003, when he received the National Medal of Arts—a far cry from picking cotton at age 9 in his native Louisiana. Considered among the best blues guitarists alive, Guy paid his dues for decades, starting as a sideman in Baton Rouge and toiling in Chicago clubs, before earning worldwide recognition, six Grammys and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His hard-edged blues style has influenced numerous artists, and, after 50-plus years, he doesn't appear to be slowing down.


Tavis: What an honor, and I do mean honor, to welcome Buddy Guy to this program. The blues legend has just released a terrific memoir about his remarkable life and career, called “When I Left Home: My Story.” The book details his humble beginnings in Louisiana and his many collaborations with the biggest names in the music business. Buddy Guy, I am delighted, sir, to have you on this program.

Buddy Guy: Well, thank you very much. I’ve been waiting to get here for a while. (Laughter) I told you in Chicago, I said, “Man, I’ve got to do your show.”

Tavis: No, I told you I wanted to have you on whenever you could work it out. I’ve told so many of my friends, who are watching – I hope they’re watching – friends who watch this program every night that you were coming on tonight, and I’ve told the story countless times.

I’m a music lover, as you know, so I could hang out with Prince, I can hang out with James Taylor, I can hang out with B.B. King, but I just love music.

Guy: Thank you.

Tavis: But I tell you, the night I spent with you at that club in Chicago is one of the great joys of my life.

Guy: Well, thank you so much.

Tavis: That night in your club, because you play there – for those who – if you are ever in Chicago (laughter) at the beginning of the year – you play the same, like, what, it’s like three or four weeks, six weeks?

Guy: Every year.

Tavis: Every year for how many weeks?

Guy: For that whole month of January.

Tavis: There you go. The whole month of January, every year, Buddy Guy plays at his club every night.

Guy: And the reason I do it, because it be so cold you have to come in to see me. (Laughter)

Tavis: So if you are ever –

Guy: So I’ll always draw a crowd.

Tavis: Exactly. If you are ever in Chicago in January, go see Buddy Guy at his club. You will not be disappointed. That night will live richly in my heart for as long as I live, because you just, man, you just (sounds like) chilled out that night, man.

Guy: Well, I think you kind of fired me up. The night you showed up we had the mayor, and he had never been there before, and we had the secretary of State. I said, “Wait a minute, man, all of these great people here, I’ve got to bring on a little extra energy that I used to have that I don’t have now.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Well, you summoned it and you killed it that night, so I’m glad that my friend, David Ritz, and you hooked up.

Guy: Thank you, yeah.

Tavis: And you had a chance to do this book. Before I jump into the story of your childhood in Louisiana and making your way up to Chicago, I’m going to jump ahead. What’s fascinating about your recording career that took off while you were in Chicago, once you got to Chicago –

Guy: Right, right.

Tavis: – is that by the time you actually started to record stuff you had already influenced with your style of play Jimi Hendrix –

Guy: No, no, no. They –

Tavis: You’re being modest, Buddy.

Guy: No, I’m being honest, because I didn’t record anything before I left Louisiana.

Tavis: No, I’m saying by the time you started recording, your style of play had already influenced people.

Guy: Oh yes, yeah, yeah. Now I got you, sorry.

Tavis: Like Hendrix and like – I know you ain’t calling me a liar on my show, Buddy.

Guy: No. (Laughter)

Tavis: Come on, now.

Guy: No, I thought you –

Tavis: Don’t give me the blues, man. (Laughter)

Guy: No, I thought you were speaking about the records being heard. Yeah.

Tavis: No, no, no, no. Before you started recording you had already influenced with your style of play –

Guy: And they had –

Tavis: – Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Stones.

Guy: Yes, yeah.

Tavis: Then you said, “I might as well record my own stuff.

Guy: Right. Well, what I was doing, I was – I had learned a lot from a great guitarist named Guitar Slim.

I came up in Louisiana and I saw B.B. King, which can vibrate a left hand like no other guitar player.

Tavis: Right.

Guy: I said, “If I can learn to play like him,” and then they brought on Guitar Slim and they said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Guitar Slim,” and I didn’t see no guitar player. He comes in the door with a 150-foot cord. I said, “I want to play like B.B., but I want to act like Slim.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Guy: So that’s where I got that from. I don’t have nothing original, anything. Most of us got, we learned it from someone else.

Tavis: That’s why I love you; you’re so modest, so modest. So why, then, if other people at the level of Hendrix and the Beatles and the Stones are being influenced by your style, why did it take you so long to get around to recording your own stuff?

Guy: I went into Chicago and at that time Chess Record was one of the biggest blues labels where was. Muddy Waters was in his good health Howling Wolf and Little Wanda, who had made this music, and they was, like, saying, “Huh, I got a plate full of turkey. I ain’t got nowhere else to put no more.”

So you just stayed back there and played behind them because they was doing so well, and I felt like I was on top of the world, for Muddy Waters to come ask me to come make a record with him, or the Wolf or (Unintelligible) or Sonny Boy.

So I said, “This is as high as I wanted to go.” I didn’t go to Chicago to be talking to you about this now, because I didn’t think I was ever good enough.

Tavis: Yeah.

Guy: No. I just said I just want to meet, go to work in the daytime, and go out and be able to go watch Muddy and them play at night, and it accidentally happened that, “Oh, you can play? Come on up here and play.” Because I just told somebody before I came here, I was so shy, man, I wouldn’t even talk until somebody taught me how to drink a glass of wine. (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you develop such a respect, such a reverence – not even just a respect. You have a reverence for these players.

Guy: Well, if everybody would do that, we would have more to laugh about. I don’t want to take credit for nothing. They say, “He’s a legend,” I’m like, “What’s that?” That’s something that’s given to you, I guess, if you stay long enough.

But I got a lot of awards I won, and every time I get one I think, I take this in honor of the people I learned from. They should have gotten it long before I did. Son House, Fred McDowell, Lightening Hopkins, those people played the music, just what I learned. It was what I learned.

I didn’t look up and say, “Oh, man, if I learn how to play a guitar I could make not much money, but I’d make a decent living like Eric Clapton or somebody. There wasn’t nothing like that out there. Little Walter made a statement about the harmonica.

When he come out of Louisiana he said, “George Washington Carver made a lot out of a peanut, and a harmonica’s a little bigger,” and I’ll be dogged if he didn’t. He sent the price of a harmonica from five cents to what it cost you today, and he passed away, but I tell B.B. King, and before you pass away, I say, “If it wasn’t for you two guys, we all could afford to buy a guitar or harmonica.” A guitar was $3.98 before B.B. King made “3:00 in the Morning.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) And the price went up.

Guy: Out of reach for me, for sure.

Tavis: What was your relationship like with Leonard Chess at Chess Records, of course based there in Chicago, and I ask that because a lot of folk who may not have known the history of Chess Records came to understand it better when the movie “Cadillac Records” came out, with Jeffrey Wright and Beyoncé.

A lot of folks saw the movie and got a better understanding of Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf and Chess Records and all that they did in that era. What was your relationship like with Leonard Chess?

Guy: Well, first of all I didn’t see the movie yet. Was there a lot of cursing in the movie?

Tavis: It was enough.

Guy: Yeah, because when I went there, I was a very quiet young man and they would call me in to come play a session with the Wolf or Muddy, and I would go over in the corner and I’d turn my head down. And they’d say, “Cut, cut. Hey, you MF, you’re too loud,” or “You’re not playing enough,” and I wouldn’t look up.

They’d come out of the engineer room and punch me on the shoulder and say, “I’m talking to you, MF,” and I’d say, “Oh, I thought my name was Buddy.” (Laughter) Within six weeks I was answering. They would just say that, I’d say, “That’s me. What?” (Laughter)

But Leonard Chess, they was very creative. I’ve heard a lot what they done to their artists, and I don’t think Chess was the only thing doing it. You had another record company out of Texas named Duke, with Don Robey, and I think Elvis would have lived a little longer if he hadn’t found out that the Colonel was making more money than him.

But Willie Mabon and all these great guys was cutting for Chess. All of them give up citizenship, started living in Europe, and they was still mad at Leonard after he had died. I was in Helsinki and Eddie Boyd was talking just like you and I, and I said, “Man, you mad at a dead man. You can’t hurt him now.” I said, “You can go back there and kick the grave, he’s not going to feel it.” (Laughter) I said, “Life go on. Whatever he did to you, you got to let that go.”

Tavis: Right.

Guy: He tried to understand it, but he still was cursing and mad at Leonard Chess, because Leonard Chess was ripping him off and I learned my lesson by seeing what they had did to those people. So I got a little better head start than them, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that most of them didn’t have as much education as I got, and I only got ninth grade.

My mother had taken a stroke and I had to drop out and go back to driving a tractor and plowing and using stuff like that.

Tavis: So you avoided most of the missteps that they made by watching them, by learning from them.

Guy: By learning from what they had went through.

Tavis: Yeah, because so many artists have been ripped off over the years.

Guy: Oh, all of us.

Tavis: Yeah.

Guy: All of us got ripped off, because that little hit money you had, you got mechanical rights, writer’s rights and all that. They didn’t know nothing about that. They would come tell you straight out, “Oh, I made you who you are.”

Tavis: Like you ain’t got no talent.

Guy: No, you got – I won’t call no names, but you got disc jockeys used to come and tell me, “Hey, boy, you could come play for me, because I made you. I played your record.” (Laughs) That mean, “I’m not going to pay you, but you come play for me.” I can call some names, but I said, “Well, you know, I can’t eat that.” (Laughter)

Tavis: See, I’m amazed, though – I shouldn’t say amazed, but just impressed that through it all, though, you end up not just being a legend in terms of your skill and your gift for playing, but you own your own club.

Guy: Yes, yes.

Tavis: That’s a long way from Louisiana.

Guy: I don’t know if you saw me in the White House in February playing.

Tavis: Yes, I did. I was about to go there.

Guy: Someone asked me just like you asked me, and I said, “That’s a long way from picking cotton,” and I didn’t have a machine. (Unintelligible) field with a sack on my back. So that’s a long way. The jazz and blues clubs are like the jazz and blues musicians – they’re disappearing.

Somebody has to keep something going, and that’s my purpose of keeping the club open. I’m out here too regularly to say I’ve got to run the club, and thank God my children are taking it over now.

Tavis: You talk in the book about – and this is my word, not yours – about the challenge that you had at one point, figuring out whether or not you wanted to play jazz, because there was a point in Chicago where jazz was higher on the register than blues was.

Guy: Well, I think it was about even when I went there. They had as many jazz clubs as they had blues clubs, and you had the greats there, man, like Gene Krupa. Man, you had what’d they call (Unintelligible).

What we used to do is some clubs had 2:00 lights and some had 4:00, and we was glad to play the 2:00 because I said, “Man, we can’t wait to get out of here to go to hear the Jug.” Or Ramsey Lewis and all these guys were playing.

Because I didn’t learn nothing from a book. I went looking for the notes George Benson played, and I’ll put it to you like this – I was looking for a dime but I found a quarter.

So that’s the way I look at it. I never could figure out what he was doing, but I found something else looking for what he was doing, and that’s how I taught myself how to play guitar.

Tavis: Yeah.

Guy: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m always blown away, though, by artists, especially iconic artists like yourself, who never took a lesson. They just taught themselves – I don’t get how you teach yourself.

Guy: Someone just asked me an interview yesterday, I think, do I practice. I don’t recommend this. I don’t even – I’ve got a guitar in my bedroom that brought me here, and it’s got dust on it. I don’t ever pick it up because if I pick it up I’m going to get hooked on something. I’m listening to spirituals 85 percent of the time, and then I’ll go listen to jazz another 10, and then I’ll listen to country and Western.

My youngest daughter, into hip-hop, she’s out there with Ludacris. Her name is Shana and she came to me – matter of fact, before I divorced her mama she said, “Do you know what that girl’s saying?” I said, “No, I’m just patting my feet. She’s talking too fast for me.” She said, “Sit down and listen to what they saying.” (Laughter) I said, “Oh,” I said, “Maybe the blues cats can go back and sing some of that stuff,” because blues cats was doing that, Redd Foxx and everybody else, and they called it a party record.

There’s a record out called “There’s a Dirty Mother for You,” and they beeped that, man. They wouldn’t let you say that, man. I’m, like, saying, “Maybe I should go back. I could sell a lot of records now (Unintelligible).” (Laughter)

Tavis: When you said you listened to – if I heard you right – about 85 percent of what you listen to is spiritual stuff?

Guy: Yeah.

Tavis: Why?

Guy: Well, in the beginning in Louisiana, the churches didn’t have keyboards, drums and guitars. We couldn’t afford that.

Tavis: Right.

Guy: It was all voices.

Tavis: Right.

Guy: If you go back to the Pilgrim Travelers with Lou Rawls and the Five Blind Boys –

Tavis: (Chicago’s own, yeah.

Guy: Yeah, the original Five Blind Boys. They didn’t have no – man, I used to stand up, couldn’t pay the 50 cents to see them. I’d climb on top of the church and peep down through a hole to watch those guys control those voices like that, and the voices was like the same chords you put on the guitar.

Everybody was screaming to the top, because you didn’t have to say “You’re making too much noise,” because the next neighbor’s house was three miles away. (Laughter) The rest of it was corn and cotton.

Tavis: What was it like back then for you as a kid in Louisiana?

Guy: To look up and see no hope.

Tavis: No hope.

Guy: No, because I know my parents wasn’t going to tell us the truth what they were going through, because they didn’t ever want you to hear the worst part about it. As we got older you figure that out yourself, and it was something bad going on, they knew they wasn’t going to be able to send me to high school.

Back then, if you learned – B.B. will tell you this, Muddy, if he was living – after you got to the second grade, just enough to write your name and drive the tractor, that’s all they wanted you to know.

I’m here to tell you that’s what it was. I got out of it, and I don’t read that much, but I just kept my mouth shut and eyes open and ears open too. That’s my education.

Tavis: A lot of observing, a lot of listening.

Guy: Yeah. I still do. I learn everything I play by listening to somebody else, and like I say, I was looking for that dime but I found a quarter.


Tavis: You did this – I mentioned earlier this new book, “When I Left Home: My Story,” is done with David Ritz, but you did a book maybe a dozen years or so, in 1999, you did a book that was memoirish, autobiographical.

What made you want to take another stab at this? What’s the difference between this one and the one before?

Guy: The one before, I think everybody’s great, but the guy had more interviews and then they did kind of the true stories that I was –

Tavis: You did more interviews and David’s done more talking to you, your voice.

Guy: Right, right, right.

Tavis: Well, David was pretty strong. The only thing, he had his computer then, he was coming up with songs. “I know this and you go way back here and you get this.” I said, “David, go punch your computer. You’re not right.” That was like the 5 Royales. 5 Royales, you know about them? I said, “That song you call ‘Work with Me, Annie’ was by the 5 Royales, man.”

He’d go back in, he’d say, “I could talk to you, because you just don’t make those mistakes.” (Laughter) Because that’s all we did when we finally got radio. My dad’s first radio, I think I was, like, 16, and that was a battery radio, and if it started raining you couldn’t hear then.

You ain’t old enough to know about all them scratches on that thing, and they had an antenna on each end of the shotgun house, and if it started lightning you’d have to cut it off because all you was was (makes noise). (Laughter)

Tavis: How did you create your own style? I mentioned earlier about the people that you influenced before you even started recording, but – and I’m not naïve about this, but in an industry, and particularly in a place like Chicago, where you had all the jazz greats and so many of the gospel greats and so many of the blues greats, how do you, in the midst of all that, create your own style, your own sound?

Guy: Looking for that dime and finding a quarter. I would go hear Muddy, and he would crack me up so much. Then I would go hear Ramsey and you had Ahmad Jamad and you had some great jazz people like some blues people locally that didn’t stick with it like I did, because there’s a lot of guys right now, and they’re somewhere in that book there.

My first wife told me, “It’s me or the guitar,” and I grabbed my guitar and left, and she laughs right now and said, “I’m glad you went.” (Laughter) But I was listening to everything and didn’t know what I was doing until somebody told me that, “Oh, you got a tone.” “Oh, have I? What is it?”

This is B.B., Muddy, T-Bone, and people like from Louisiana, Smiling Louis, Guitar Slim. That’s all that stuff together. I was trying to play like each one of them, and I guess in my learning, teaching myself, I was picking up a note from Muddy, picking up a note from Sonny Boy, and I listened to the harmonica too.

I’m like saying, throw up my hand, but I love my guitar too well to say I ain’t going to pick you back up no more. I used to set it in the corner and say, “I can’t get that.”

Five minutes, I’d go pick it back, my fingers was bleeding on the end of it, man, and I’m like saying – finally, somebody heard me, said, “Man, you sound pretty good.” “Do I?” I didn’t know that. I still don’t know that. Sometimes – yesterday – sometimes I go out and play, why am I hear with all these good guitar players?

They looking at me, man, better be careful, Buddy coming. (Laughter) I was playing at the Bowl and they had Bill Cosby there, and he come by and he didn’t see me, and he’s telling some other guitar player, “Do you know who you got to follow?”

I’m like saying, “Wait a minute, let me see who was there.” “Mister, you got to follow Buddy Guy.” I’m like, “Oh, man.” (Laughter) Don’t say nothing like that, because I’m here to listen and learn, because I don’t ever listen to Buddy Guy’s record.

If you come to my house, I have some friends, a lot of them passed and gone; they would look at me and say, “Let me see that CD or that album, here.” He’d put it up and lock it under the arms. “You don’t need it.” I said, “What do you mean, I don’t need it?” They said, “Well, you get ready for it, you just sing.” (Laughter)

Tavis: But you don’t listen to your own stuff, Buddy?

Guy: No, no. See, I can’t learn nothing from listening to me. That’s something I already know. (Laughter)

Tavis: I love Buddy Guy, man.

Guy: I’m being honest. When you catch me playing something at home, it’s somebody else’s stuff where I can what we call steal licks from, and that’s how I taught myself how to play.

I didn’t have nothing. Let me tell you the story, I went, just before my mother had taken the stroke, I graduated to go to ninth grade, and I went to school, I said, “Oh, this is it. I’m going to take music.”

I had one 78 record by Muddy Waters called “Louisiana Blues.” I went to the teacher, and he’s still living – that’s the one I told you about (Unintelligible) I’m glad you sit and listen to him. I said, “I want to take the music.” He said, “Yeah, pick up book one.”

I brought out this 78, I said, “I got book one. This is book one.” (Laughter)

Tavis: He brought out a 78.

Guy: Yeah. He heard that and he said, “I can’t teach you that.” I said, “Well, I can’t come to your class, because this is what I want to learn.” (Laughter)

Tavis: This is what I want to learn, right here.

Guy: Yeah.

Tavis: If you can’t teach it, stop wasting my time.

Guy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But he was honest, and we laugh about it now when I see him. He’s still living, yeah.

Tavis: You still enjoy the touring thing after all these years?

Guy: Yeah, the touring thing is the light of my life. The worst part about touring, I’m here today to you, and before Vegas and the gig yesterday I came straight from Argentina, through Texas.

Tavis: You were in Argentina?

Guy: Yeah.

Tavis: Whew.

Guy: As a matter of fact I played three days in Brazil, then went to Argentina and came straight through Texas to Vegas.

Tavis: You ain’t no spring chicken, Buddy.

Guy: No, but if you love people like I do, the spring there but the chicken ain’t. (Laughter)

Tavis: I love that about watching you, because when you see you play, part of what turned me on is not just how amazing you are in concert, but the love that emanates from you just fills the room. The people give you energy and you give them energy, but the love is just so – it’s boundless.

Guy: Well, music speaks in our language. They got some pictures, I don’t have them anymore, going through my divorce, where I played in Africa, and I got off the plane in 1969, I said, “Now, what am I going to do?” Because I was going to a lot of countries where they have – it was a cultural exchange from Washington.

We had the guy to speak, I think, 12 or 13 different languages. I took a shot at (Unintelligible) I said, “You know what? I’m just going to play Buddy Guy.” I did, and those people was like, “How do y’all know what I’m saying? How do you know what I’m doing?”

It was amazing. We go to countries now where a lot of people don’t speak a lot of English, and all people don’t speak a lot of English in Brazil, but everywhere we went, we sold out.

Tavis: The blues, it’s universal.

Guy: Yeah, and that’s why I say yeah, it speaks in our language. What I do is when I go to the stage I forget about me. It’s who thought enough – you know how cold it was, you was there. I’m like saying, “If you think enough to come out in this kind of weather, zero, to see me, I think I’d better jump naked and go outside and play for you. (Laughter)

Tavis: See, I love him, man. I love him to death. Actually, to put another – I love him to life. I could not do justice to this book. I could not do justice to his life. I couldn’t do justice to his legacy in a full show, even.

So let me recommend the book. It’s called “When I Left Home: My Story.” Buddy Guy with David Ritz, it’s a wonderful read. Again, I haven’t even scratched the surface on it, and I tell you – and I wasn’t teasing at the top of the show – if you are ever in Chicago in January, first of all, God help you if you’re in Chicago in January.

But if you’re in Chicago in January, make your way. He plays there every night for the whole month. Make your way down to Buddy Guy’s club. I promise you it will change your life. If you ever see him on the road somewhere, you see he’s anywhere near you, go see this guy one time, and I promise you it’s a life-altering experience.

Buddy Guy, I love you. I’m so honored to have you on this program.

Guy: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Oh, my honor.

Guy: I waited a long time. If you ever need me for anything, just say the word and I’ll come running back to you.

Tavis: I will. You’re my man. (Laughter)

Guy: All right.

Tavis: You’re my man.

Guy: Thank you so much.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

[Video clip of musical performance with Buddy Guy and several other performers]

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: December 30, 2012 at 12:44 pm